With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

ACF 106: Roughneck @ Japan Society

All photos copyright Nikkatsu Corporation

Roughneck / Arakure
Directed by Yasuharu Hasebe
With Akira Kobayashi, Masako Izumi, Tatsuya Fuji
Japan, 1969, color, 86 min

Japan Society's inaugural Monthly Classics series concludes this Friday. Entitled NO BORDERS, NO LIMITS: 1960s Nikkatsu Action Cinema and curated by well-known author and critic Mark Schilling (The Japan Times and Variety), it has featured a total of eight films never before screened in the U.S.

In Roughneck, the final film in the series, Akira Kobayashi plays Yuji, a "reckless troublemaker." He becomes involved with both an otobun (a younger gang brother) who's trying to go straight and a hot springs geisha, who's the lover of a local yakuza boss whose gang is being challenged by an outside rival.

Roughneck will be shown at Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues, Manhattan, on Friday, May 2nd, at 7:30 pm.

For more information or to buy tickets, click here.

Monday, April 28, 2008

ACF 105: Maiko Haaaan!!! in Seattle

Kimihiko (Sadawo Abe) with two objects of his fixation.

Maiko Haaaan!!!
Directed by Nobuo Mizuta
Japan, 2007, 120 min

This hilarious Japanese comedy about a salaryman obsessed with maiko, as apprentice geisha are called, is starting a one week theatrical run in Seattle, Washington this Friday. The film will screen May 2-8 at:

Grand Illusion Cinema
1403 NE 50th Street
Seattle, WA 98105

Kou Shibasaki (r) plays the girlfriend Kimihiko dumped and who
decides to train as a maiko herself to win him back.

The screenplay is by Kankuro Kudo, who was also the scribe of such fare as Ping Pong and Takashi Miike's Zebraman. Director Mizuta has done a fine job bringing it to the screen, imbuing it with lively colors and wonderful pacing, which is essential if a comedy is to succeed.

I urge you Asian Film Fans in the Seattle area to check this one out. I can pretty much guarantee you'll have a fun time with this odd-ball look at the unique world of maiko and geisha.

For my review of Maiko Haaaan!!! in ACF 103, click here.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

ACF 104: "Flash Point" available on DVD

Flash Point / Dao huo xian
Directed by Wilson Yip
Hong Kong, 2007, 88 min

This fabulous Hong Kong action film, which enjoyed a limited theatrical release in the U.S. this past March, came out on DVD earlier this week. Flash Point again united director Wilson Yip and actor Donnie Yen, whose previous work together includes 2006's Dragon Tiger Gate and 2005's Kill Zone (a.k.a. SPL).

Yen (who also produced and served as Action Director) stars as Jun Ma, a "righteous" detective in the Serious Crimes Unit. He's a tough-as-nails type who has no problem laying a heavy dose of whoop-ass on the bad guys. His employment of excessive violence has resulted in numerous complaints. His department superiors are none too happy about his methods, though they can't deny the results achieved.

The film is set in 1997, just before the handover of Hong Kong to the Mainland. In my original review I speculated that this was done to avoid suggesting that police would use such techniques in Communist China. In the available commentary (more on that later), Donnie Yen pretty much confirms this, while adding that the film also wanted to avoid suggesting that such criminal activity could even exist in Hong Kong after the turnover.

Donnie Yen (left) and Louis Koo face off in a night club

Wilson (Louis Koo) is an undercover cop who has infiltrated a gang led by three vicious Vietnamese brothers. When eldest brother Archer Sin (Lui Leung-wai) is arrested, Tony (Collin Chou), the middle brother, and Tiger (Xing Yu), the youngest, go on a rampage of intimidation, kidnapping and murder to secure Archer's release.

The fighting scenes are terrific. The film culminates in over fifteen minutes of confrontation that starts out with weapons and ends with a one-on-one extended fight sequence between detective Ma (Yen) and Tony (Chou). If this doesn't satisfy your "jones" for action, I don't know what will.

Collin Chou (left) and Yen in the climactic fight scene

Flash Point is another outstanding "Two-Disc Ultimate Edition" release from Dragon Dynasty. I've listed all the special features at the end of this review, but want to draw your attention to some of them.

First off, the feature length commentary is terrific. It's like sitting in a screening room with Yen and Bey Logan, who's done numerous other commentaries on Dragon Dynasty releases and who is incredibly knowledgeable. You'll not only learn about the film, but also about the ongoing hardship of filming in Hong Kong, such as the difficulty of obtaining street permits and the need to shoot around actors' schedules on other projects that are filming simultaneously. You definitely should check this out when you're ready for a second viewing of the film.

The Behind-The-Scenes Gallery consists of three featurettes, not stills, about the film. They're quite good.

The Gladiators segment in The Ultimate Fighters section is a non-stop montage of intense action scenes from the film itself and from rehearsals. Crank it up for an adrenaline rush.

M.M.A. on Display features a young Asian woman learning some basic Ultimate Fighter moves. M.M.A. stands for Mixed Martial Arts, the fighting style that combines methods from different disciplines and which is the basis of Yen's action directing here. This segment takes place in the Hong Kong gym where the film's opening sequence was shot and is in English. (Aside from this and the commentary, the extras are in Chinese with English subtitles available).

There are two basic styles of fighting: striking and grappling. In M.M.A., fighters cross-train, so that a practitioner of one style learns how to employ, as well as defend against, the tactics of other styles. Muay Thai, which uses fists, elbows, knees, and feet (go watch Ong-Bak, if you haven't already), is the primary striking style utilized. Grappling usually consists of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or submission wrestling. While M.M.A. is addressed in the film commentary and some of the other special features, I found this segment particularly interesting and informative.

Flash Point is great entertainment, a real shot-in-the-arm for fans of Hong Kong action. The film gets a 3.5 out of 4 star rating, and the extras in the 2-Disc DVD package earn 4 out of 4 stars.

Special Features:
Disc 1
Feature length commentary with Donnie Yen and Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan
Disc 2
Behind-The-Scenes Gallery
- Collateral Damage: The Making Of Flash Point
- Flash Point Explored
- Perpetual Motion
The Ultimate Fighters
- Gladiators
- M.M.A. On Display
Promotional Gallery
- On Dangerous Ground (an interview with Donnie Yen)
- Gala Premiere
- Trailers, Teases, TV Spots
Deleted Scenes

My original review of the theatrical release of Flash Point, from which some of the above was taken, ran in ACF: 086.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

ACF 103: Maiko Haaaan!!!

Sadawo Abe, Kou Shibasaki, and Shinichi Tsutsumi

Maiko Haaaan!!!
Directed by Nobuo Mizuta
Japan, 2007, 120 min

Get ready, get set, go see this colorful, comedic confection about one man's obsession with maiko (apprentice geisha). Its one week exclusive run at the ImaginAsian Theater in Manhattan starts this Friday, April 18th, 2008.

Sadawo Abe (aka Sadao Abe) stars as Kimihiko (a.k.a. Kimi) Onizuka. Kimi's a lowly salaryman at a company that makes instant noodles (ramen) in Tokyo. He's also crazy for maiko and geisha, has been ever since meeting some in Kyoto while on a high school trip years earlier, as we learn in a flashback.

Sporting a bowl cut hairstyle that makes him look like a Japanese version of Moe Howard of The Three Stooges, Kimi is thrilled when he's transferred from the main office in Tokyo, where almost all of the ramen manufacturing takes place, to Kyoto, where only the toppings are made. He doesn't care that the transfer is a demotion, because it'll put him in proximity of the objects of his desire.

Once there he learns that the tea houses, where one enjoys the company of geisha, all have a "no first timer" policy. This requires that one be vouched for by a regular in order to be admitted, a rule intended to keep out coarse fools like himself. But Kimi is a resourceful fellow and eventually succeeds in having the company's president, Mr. Suzuki, vouch for him.

Shinichi Tsutsumi (left) and Kou Shibasaki (right)

He then meets Kiichiro Naito (Shinichi Tsutsumi, Japan Academy best actor award winner for 2005's Always - Sunset on Third Street). He's a famous pro-baseball player, a drunken lout, and a geisha aficionado. He also happens to be the individual who'd earlier flamed Kimi's website, correctly calling him out as an amateur who'd never been to a geisha house. This meeting sets up an ongoing rivalry that produces hilarious results.

Kou Shibasaki as Fujiko Osawa

Meanwhile, Fujiko (Kou Shibasaki, whose credits include Memories of Matsuko), the girlfriend Kimi dumped when he knew he was coming to Kyoto, has come to the city to become a maiko herself. Clearly she starts out hoping to win Kimi back, but things start to take a different turn once Kiichiro starts to exhibit a fervent liking for her.

Comic mayhem ensues what with the various rivalries and love interests, to say nothing of Kimi's crazy suggestions that somehow always succeed. It's all very upbeat and bouncy, aside from the one serious dramatic thread involving Kiichiro and another geisha, the very one who Kimi first met on that field trip several years ago.

Director Mizuta on the set

The film is smartly helmed by second time director Nobuo Mizuta. Born in 1958, his career started in TV in 1981. His first feature film was 2006's Hanada Shonen-Shi. I'm pretty sure that he's deliberately included one scene as a nod to the end of Akira Kurosawa's High and Low, which makes him pretty smart and knowledgeable if I'm correct. If I'm wrong about this homage, Mizuta's still a very talented fellow.

Kankuro Kudo wrote the script. He joined the OTONO KEIKARU theatre group in 1991, when he was about twenty-one years old. (Sadawo Abe joined the group in 1992.) Besides writing for theatre and TV shows, Kudo's film credits include Ping Pong, which I reviewed in ACF 048 and which is available on DVD from VIZ Pictures.

Maiko Haaaan!!! is a delightful, cheerful and funny film. I give it a 3 out of 4 star solid recommendation.

For information about Maiko Haaaan!!! at the ImaginAsian, click here.

I haven't been notified of any other planned screenings, but if I do rest assured I'll pass on the information. And while I always urge Asian film fans to support theatrical releases, I'm sure that there'll be a DVD release from VIZ Pictures, distributors of the film, in the near future, for those of you who can't make it to a live screening.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

ACF 102: Funky Forest - Los Angeles Screenings

Funky Forest copyright 2004 "Naisu no Mon" Production Committee. All rights reserved.

Funky Forest: The First Contact moves to the third and final stop on its three city theatrical engagment tour. It will be playing at the ImaginAsian Center, April 18-24, 2008

For my review of the 2-disc DVD release of Funky Forest, click here.

One thing I'd like to add here that I didn't include in my DVD review is the director's fondness for analog. There's not an iPod or any kind of MP3 player to be seen. Instead we get dual record turntables in an apartment and an audio cassette player in a car. Totally old school, as they say.

The ImaginAsian Center is at 251 South Main Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012

For further info or showtime, click here or call the ImaginAsian Center at 213.617.1033

Monday, April 14, 2008

ACF 101: Battles Without Honor

Cover art for Battles Without Honor and Humanity
as Volume 1 of The Yakuza Papers box set
available from Home Vision Entertainment

The Asia Society's film series Gamblers, Gangsters, and Other Anti-Heroes: The Japanese Yakuza Movie concludes with a screening of Battles Without Honor and Humanity on Thursday, April 17th at 7:00 pm. Directed by the late Kinji Fukasaku (Black Rose Mansion, Battle Royale, and many other great films), this seminal 1973 film was the first in a series concerned with the conflicts between and within rival crime families in the Hiroshima area in the years after the end of World War II.

The film starts with an emotionally powerful shot of the Gembaku Domo, the "A-Bomb Dome," Hiroshima's only structural ruin left erect as a reminder of the bomb's devastation. With the city essentially destroyed and the economy in ruins, there were construction contracts to be had and black markets to be run, both prime turf for gang activity.

Bunta Sugawara (above, center) stars as Shozo Hirono, a former soldier who comes to the aid of a Japanese citizen being assaulted by American G.I.s. In prison he is befriended by a member of gang. After their release, Hirono becomes a yakuza himself. He is the central character around whom this film, and the overall series, revolves

The film is of major significance for at least a couple of reasons. Previously films about yakuza were known as ninkyo eiga, or chivalry films. These tended to pivot on the protagonist's conflict between his duties to his crime family and his feelings for an outsider, often a member of another gang with whom he has a special relationship, such as a sworn brother. Here, as the title suggests, there's little chivalry, honor, or humanity. Betrayals run rampant not only between both also within families. Bosses will sell out their underlings and vice versa.

Director Kinji Fukasaku in his younger days

Battles Without Honor and Humanity also constitutes an alternative to the official version of Japanese history. This resulted from Fukasaku being roughly fifteen years old when the war ended. Suddenly, the emperor, who adults had insisted was a god, was declared to be as human as anyone else. This instantaneous change in belief left Fukasaku and others with a great distrust of the official count of things. The movies in the Battles Without ... series tell the story of those who were not talked about or acknowledged to have existed in official chronicles.

Battles Without Honor and Humanity will be shown at Asia Society's New York City Headquarters at 725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street) in Manhattan. Film series curator Ian Buruma and Japanese film scholar Kyoko Hirano will lead a discussion after the screening. For more information or to order tickets, click here or call Asia Society at 212.517.ASIA.

For anyone interested in owning Battles Without Honor and Humanity, as I've indicated just below the top image, this film is available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment. It can be purchased separately or as Volume 1 of a box set entitled The Yakuza Papers, which also includes the following four films in the series and a valuable bonus disc.

[The above review appeared in somewhat different form in ACF 084 (March, 10, 2008) in conjunction with a screening of Battles ... the following day at Columbia universtiy.]

Saturday, April 12, 2008

ACF 100: Pu-San

"Pu San" copyright 1953 Toho Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved

Directed by Kon Ichikawa
Japan, 1953, b&w, 98 minutes

Yonekichi Noro (Yunosuke Ito, left in picture above) is a most unfortunate individual, a middle-aged widower and teacher at a second-rate school for students who have failed their college entrance exams. We meet him one morning as he narrowly avoids a swerving truck, but injures one of his hands in doing so.

His misfortunes continue in this dark comedy inspired by a comic strip of the same name. He first gets demoted at work, then fired after participating in a labor demonstration, where his other hand gets injured! Nor do his attempts to win the the heart of his landlord's young and beautiful daughter (Fubuki Koshiji, center, above) succeed. When, at her suggestion, they go to a nightclub, he is visibly aroused by the exotic dancer, while she is merely bored.

Yunosuke Ito, with his horse face and hang-dog visage, is perfectly cast as the hapless teacher. Weak-willed, but not totally spineless (he does make an energetic attempt to get his job back), Pu-San knows that he's not happy, but has only a general idea of what will improve his lot and vague notions of how to achieve this.

Kon Ichikawa, who died this past February 13th at the age of 92, is probably best known in the U.S. for The Burmese Harp (1956), Fires on the Plain (1959), and Tokyo Olympiad (1965), all available from The Criterion Collection. He directed his first film in 1934; his last was The Inugamis in 2006. All told, he helmed 89 films, and wrote or co-wrote the scripts for 50, including this one.

In Pu-San (also known as Mr. Pu in the U.S.), Ichikawa fashioned a humorous look at such Japanese post-war problems as job insecurity, student and labor unrest, incompetent police, and political corruption, not to mention personal relationships. That it holds up and remains funny over 50 years after it's release is a remarkable achievement, yet another testament to this great director.

I saw Pu-San last Tuesday at Columbia University. It's the next to last film in the OUT OF THE ASHES: Early Postwar Japanese Movies, a series presented by The Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University in conjunction with the Donald Keen Center of Japanese Culture.

The last film in the series is Black River (1957), directed by Masaki Kobayashi. The film centers on a mild-mannered college student who helplessly witnesses a girl put into prostitution by yakuza. It will be shown Tuesday, April 15th at 6:00 PM at the Arledge Cinema in Alfred Lerner Hall, Columbia University. The film will be followed by brief intermission and then a Panel Discussion from 8:00-9:00.

The panel members will be:
Kim Brandt, Columbia University
aron Gerow, Yale University
Linda Hoaglund, Filmmaker, Translator, and "Out of the Ashes" curator
Hikari Hori, Columbia University

Registration for Black River is required for those without a Columbia University ID. For more information or to register, click here.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

ACF 099: NANA out on DVD!

Last week I wrote a review of NANA in ACF 098. I noted that this delightful film, about two very different young women who happen to share the same name, was beginning a one week theatrical run at the ImaginAsian Theatre in Manhattan and that VIZ Pictures was likely to release a DVD in the near future.

Well, the DVD is out today! I just found out about it late last night and don't have any particulars yet about extras and such. But I do hope to get a screener soon. If and when I do, I'll write a review of the DVD package.

Friday, April 04, 2008


Directed by Kentaro Otani
Starring Aoi Miyazaki (left, above) and Mika Nakashima (right)
Screenplay by Kentaro Otani and Taeko Asano
Based on the manga by Ai Yazawa
Japan, 2005, 114 minutes

Once upon a manga, and now upon a movie, there were two girls named Nana. One, Nana "Hachi" Komatsu (Aoi Miyazaki), has a wide smile, dresses conventionally and goes to Tokyo to reunite with her boyfriend. The other, Nana Osaki (Mika Nakashima), is an aspiring punk rocker who goes to Tokyo to seek fame and fortune after her boyfriend has left her.

They meet on the train to the big city and again when they both arrive to look at the same apartment, which they decide to share. But it's more than living quarters they share, as each stands by and supports the other in matters of life and love.

The film is narrated at times by Nana Komatsu, and it's primarily the story of the punk singer Nana, whose name is spelled "NANA" in the subtitles. Details of her breakup with her boyfriend (the two were in the same band), are revealed in a number of flashbacks.

There are some lovely shots in this tale of a sweet but oddball friendship. And though it's clearly a youth-oriented movie, it's themes of ambition, loyalty, and caring have a universal appeal that go beyond any particular age group.

The cast is attractive and endearing, and the script avoids treacle. I did feel that the ending was somewhat pat and sudden, probably because of the need to compress a multi-volume manga (available from VIZ Media) into a conventional length feature film.

NANA is another example of the many fine youth movies that Japan produces. But you don't have to be young to enjoy it, only young at heart. NANA gets a solid ACF recommendation of 3 out of 4 stars.

NANA, presented by VIZ pictures, played in Los Angeles for seven days at the end of March. It screens starting today, Friday, April 4th, 2008, through the 10th at the ImaginAsian Theatre on East 59th Street in Manhattan. For further info and showtimes. click here.

For those who couldn't or can't make it to a theatrical screening, I'm pretty sure a DVD will be available from VIZ in the not too distant future. That's been the case with their other releases. I'll have further news if and when it's available.

All photos copyright 2000 "NANA" Production

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

ACF 097: Glass Johnny at Japan Society

Glass Johnny: Looks Like a Beast
(Garasu no Joni - yaju no yo ni miete)
Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara
With Jo Shishido, Izumi Ashikawa, Daizaburo Hirata
Japan, 1962, 108 minutes
(All images copyright Nikkatsu Corporation)

The inaugural Monthly Classics series NO BORDERS, NO LIMITS: 1960s Nikkatsu Action Cinema, curated by noted author and critic Mark Schilling, continues at Japan Society this Friday, April 4th, 2008 with this homage to Fellini's La Strada. Like the other films in the series, Glass Johnny is being shown for the first time in the U.S.

Nikkatsu stalwart Shishido stars as a man who backs a struggling rider in hopes of winning big. Meanwhile, he also becomes the unwilling savior of a simple-minded prostitute with a heart of gold who's on the run from her pimp.

Izumi Ashikawa had previously portrayed cute-but-spunky girls, roles that had won her a devoted male following. (Animator Hayao Miyazaki was to later use her as a model for his anime heroines.) Her portrayal here of a character similar to Giulietta Masina's Gelsomina in La Strada marks Ashikawa's brazen move from childhood to womanhood.

Showtime is 7:30 PM. Japan Society is located at 333 East 47th Street, between First and Second Avenues (accessible by the 4/5/6 at 42nd Street-Grand Central Station or the E and V at Lexington Avenue and 53rd St.) For more information click here, or call the box office at 212-715-1258.

Japan Society's NO BORDERS, NO LIMITS: 1960s Nikkatsu Action Cinema will conclude with Yasuharu Hasebe's Roughneck on Friday, May 2, 2008. The series is co-organized by Outcast Cinema, and a tour of other US and Canadian venues is planned for later this year.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

ACF 096: Tattooed Life @ Asia Society

Tattooed Life / Irezumi Ichi-dai
Directed by Seijun Suzuki
Japan, 1965, 82 minutes

The Gamblers, Gangsters, and Other Anti-Heroes: The Japanese Yakuza Movie film series at Asia Society in Manhattan continues Thursday night, April 3, 2008, with this fine film from the venerable Japanese director Seijun Suzuki.

A traditional ninkyo eiga (chivalry) film, Tattooed Life is set in the first year of Showa, the name Emperor Hirohito gave to his reign in 1926. Tetsu (Hideki Takahashi), a member of the Owada family, kills the leader of a rival gang as ordered. In a plot device often used in Yakuza films, he is betrayed by his gang and is to be killed. Kenji (Akira Yamauchi), his younger brother and an artist, saves him by killing his would-be murderer. Hoping to get to Manchuria, the brothers flee, but end up in a rural, coastal village where they work for a family-owned construction company.

Kenji, who declared that "I can't make art with hands that have shed blood," finds his talent rekindled by Mrs. Yamashita (Hiroko Ito), the wife of the owner of the company. A hopeless romantic, Kenji begs her to allow him to draw her when she's naked. Although she doesn't directly agree to this, she slyly lets him know that she's only naked when she bathes. Meanwhile, her younger sister, Masayo (Masako Izumi), has fallen for Tetsu.

When a rival family puts the screws to Yamashita and his wife, all hell breaks loose. Tetsu goes to rescue them sword in hand and cuts down bad guys right, left and down the middle. His final confrontation with the other gang's boss is shot partially from underneath a glass floor, the kind of visual touch that Suzuki would throw in to keep from getting bored with standard genre material.

Tattooed Life offers great fun, some astoundingly beautiful screen compositions, and detectives who for some enigmatic reason wear red shoes! My ACF rating is 3.5 out of 4 stars.

Ian Buruma curated this series and is set to introduce the screening, which like all the films in the series will start at 7:00 pm. The Asia Society is located at 725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street). The facility is fabulous, and the theater features nicely raked stadium-type seating with really comfortable seats.

For more information about Thursday night's screening, or other films to be shown, click here, or call the society at 212.288.6400.

For those of you not in the New York City metro area, Tattooed Life is available on DVD from HVE (Home Vision Entertainment). If you're interested in purchasing it, here's a link to amazon.com. (And, no, I don't have any sort of arrangement with Amazon; the link is provided purely for your convenience.)